Why America’s unquestioning idolization of Steve Jobs is inappropriate

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer Corporation died today October 6 2011 at the age of 56 from a rare form of cancer of the pancreas. His death has been accompanied by widespread expressions of admiration for the man and his accomplishments. These accomplishments include the creation of Apple Computer Corporation, apple computers, the iPod, iphone and ipad as well also NEXT computer corporations and Pixar animations including Toy Story.   He overcame numerous adversities in his climb to success and fame including being fired from Apple Computer Corporation by a man he hired to manage the company for him while he focused his energies on developing new products.  It is probably fair to say of Steve Jobs that he exemplifies much of what many Americans think is the best about America; opportunity to rise from nowhere to stardom, no silver spoon in his case but lots of hard work and a eye on the goal.  I admired him.  He seems like a good man, there are no terrible stories about him, his company is respected and he is idolized by many.   The cofounder of Apple, Wozniak says, perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, that he’ll “be remembered for the next hundred years as the best business leader of out time.” 

You may be wondering, “where’s the beef”?  Those of you who have read my recent blogs will know that Steve Jobs is a pivot figure in one of the most important aspects of globalization – the offshoring and outsourcing of production to the developing nations of the world. Just as Apple has grown in recent years so have the companies that supply apple with the parts and machines that make Apple a successful corporation. One company that supplies Apple is Foxconn a Chinese firm which now employs more than 1 million workers and is one of the fastest growing companies in the world. They manufacture Ipads and Iphones for Apple. If you have read my earlier blogs you realize that one focus has been on the terrible working conditions at Foxconn Corporation in China. Long work weeks – 12  hours a day x 6 days a week, military like working conditions, low wages, and low employee morale has led to more than 15 suicides in the past year.  One might argue that Foxconn is not Apple. After all, Apple has a “code of practice and conduct” that they claim they hold each company to. Yet, there is little doubt that the pressures to produce products at Foxconn at competitive prices has contributed to these working conditions.  

And now we return to Steve Jobs – the pioneer and great business man – and ask what role does he play in this process that leads to these desperate conditions for Foxconn employees and what responsibility does he have for the conditions that face working people at Foxconn and for that matter in China as a whole? This question is one that has troubled scholars. How much are individual’s (regardless of their position in society) responsible for the exploitation that occurs at the hands of a capitalist economy and how much are they mere “cogs in the wheel” whereby their hands are forced by the pragmatics of business, growth and accountability to shareholders. Some would say that a man with the power of Steve Jobs could have turned his attention and made a difference to the working conditions at Apple’s subcontracted companies.  Why he didn’t consider encouraging Apple to pull its contracts with Foxconn is a story we may now never know. 

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